nebulae

Gingersnaps

That Andrew ventured into the guest room at all was unusual. It was the room where his daughter from his first marriage stayed when she visited, and he thought of it as hers. He always suspected she would intuit any betrayal of her privacy and add it to the tab of disloyalties he’d run up since the day she was born, when he’d looked at her wrinkled little face and felt, faster than joy, the horror of an irreparable misstep. (For years he’d dreamed of incurable illnesses, ice floes separated from the landmass, rivers of lava he could not outrun. Facing his newborn, he understood that his life was lost. He would never be the same kind of free.) But his wife wanted the guest room clean, not full of stubby eyeliners and old running shoes, so on a Saturday morning Andrew sullenly vacuumed the carpet and straightened the bed. He stacked his older daughter’s cleats on her flip- flops in the closet and then, in the toe of a hiking boot, found a Ziploc containing what looked like half an ounce of marijuana.

It had been at least twenty years since he’d been free to smoke a joint. Sometimes Andrew got a skunky whiff of someone else’s evening as the elevator passed the eighth floor, but he always agreed with his wife: those bad kids. Now, while his wife was out of town for work, Andrew tore a page from the Bible he’d once accidentally stolen from a hotel room in Arlington and felt too guilty to throw away. He read a line about lamb and a burnt offering, which seemed as decent a sign as any regarding the cosmic merits or demerits of lighting a joint.

But as Andrew opened the Ziploc and breathed in the dank bud, he felt certain his wife would catch him as surely as his mother had sniffed him out whenever he’d smoked in high school. He tucked the Bible page back into the binding. Abandoning the guest room, he put on his reading glasses and Googled “easy ways to cook weed no smell.” The first option he found was “canna-gazpacho.” Andrew closed his laptop. He tried sprinkling some into his morning cereal. He didn’t get even a little high.

That afternoon, while his six-year-old daughter, Sadie, and her friend shrieked gaily from the living room, Andrew accepted that happiness would eternally elude him. He thought with sadness of the Ziploc he’d returned to its hiking boot. As his thoughts began drifting to the possibility of canna-oatmeal, the doorbell rang. It was Elle come to pick up her daughter. More weekends than not, Andrew faced Elle across the threshold of his apartment and girded himself against her. Though he admired a good performance, the shaved right side of her otherwise lovely head and the tattooed vine snaking up her earlobe struck him as misguided. He did not care for her hip millennial judgment and imagined she saw a paunchy, Upper West Side aristo, an old misogynist with the ex-wives to prove it. But, their daughters loved each other. They were stuck.

Elle wore skinny jeans as tight as his wife’s and a tee shirt as unintelligible as his older daughter’s. What was dale quimbombó? Andrew watched Elle employ the tactic they each took at the other’s apartment while waiting for their children to emerge: she scanned the bookshelves. Today she seemed focused on the biographies of leading conservative thinkers. He knew what she was thinking, that it was worse than she’d suspected, this home into which she’d sent her child. He wanted to explain that he was a democrat, had always been liberal; the books were just business for his publishing house. Wasn’t it arguably good for the country to cultivate a broad range of voices?

“You’ve quite the collection,” she said.

“I’ve always been an avid reader,” he said, because how could she argue with that? He geared up for a speech about reading outside one’s bubble, not to mention the importance of the first amendment, when she pointed to a thick gray spine and asked if she could borrow it.

“That one?” Andrew asked, skeptical of Elle’s interest in an author who, after the latest school shooting, had become infamous for her defense of assault rifles.

“I like to keep abreast. Thanks for the loan.”

She slipped the book into her bag and seemed immediately to regret passing up the chance to read until her daughter emerged. He could see her deliberating whether to take the book out again.

Watching her, Andrew decided that this woman would know what to do with a bag of weed. All the indices of cool that had thus far put him off—not just her haircut and tattoo, but the books about the social construct of gender he’d seen punctuating her bookshelves when he, in turn, picked up his own daughter— seemed harbingers of a wonderful high.

She still had her hand in her bag when Andrew blurted, stupidly and without grace, “What about marijuana? Do you keep abreast of that?”

Elle looked up. “I wouldn’t say abreast.” Her eyes searched his. “Is there a problem?”

Andrew could anticipate the allegations: He had exposed her daughter to neoconservative hardcovers and then assumed that, what, because she was married to a woman she smoked pot? Perhaps it had been a mistake to broach the subject, but at this point backpedaling seemed as arduous as pushing forward, and anyway he really wanted to get high.

He sighed. “I found a bag of weed in my older daughter’s bedroom. And I thought, with everything—” He hadn’t considered why the weed meant so much to him, but, once alluded to, reasons emerged fully-formed from the morass of his life: after years of rising through the ranks of his publishing house, it had become clear that what remained to him was little beyond a front-row seat to others’ advancement. Even his wife was going places faster than he, earning numerous promotions that kept her late at the office and intensified her travel schedule. For a woman who’d suggested she’d marry him if he could guarantee a life of Michelin-starred restaurants, his wife ordered a remarkable number of take-out dinners to work. You’ll lose her how you got her, his ex texted him the night before his wedding. For ten minutes he’d stared at that text, recalling his own late hours with his young hire, the way she organized the shelves in her office like she was playing a version of house that had room for him. But that text was vindictive bullshit and meant nothing, however much he thought about it in the middle of the night.

“What’s the problem?” Elle asked.

“Well,” he said, startled. “The smell. I have to be discreet.”

Elle considered him for a moment. He felt sure she could sense his earlier foray with the cereal. “Tea would be easy,” she said. “But if you have time, cookies are good. You can make extra and freeze them. Or keep them in a tin.”

“Would the kitchen smell?”

“Not if you cook something else at the same time, something pungent.” They looked at each other. “It doesn’t have to taste good,” Elle added, “it just has to stink. You could burn popcorn.”

“The smoke alarm here goes off even when I don’t burn the popcorn. I don’t suppose—” Andrew hesitated, bashful of misunderstanding in a way he hadn’t felt since elementary school, when his mother had told him Dina Jackson had called to invite him to a party. He hadn’t wanted to go. Dina had big ears that stuck up like a Papillon’s. Not even the friendless violist liked Dina. But his mother had urged him to call her, to do her the kindness of his attendance. So he’d called, and she’d answered, and he’d sensed something wrong in the surprise of her voice. But he’d blundered ahead anyway, said he’d love to come, and Dina had had no idea what Andrew was talking about. Come to what? If he died and reincarnated, he would rather come back as a tree than a third-grader.

“I don’t suppose you’d want to bake with me sometime and split the batch?”

After what seemed like a brief inner struggle, Elle shrugged.

By the next morning, Elle knew it would be a mistake to help Andrew bake, the kind of blunder Donna was always telling Elle to stop making. You’re not a teenager, you’re a parent, act like one. Elle was a great parent. She took their daughter to that douchebag’s house twice a week and saw him another two times at least when he came over to get his kid. She picked their daughter up from school and dropped her off more and more often, too. She made the lunches. She did the grocery shopping. Sometimes she made pasta. Elle, you always make things so needlessly complicated, why can’t you settle down and be happy? her mother had always asked her. Jesus. Because she could do her graphic design work from home and Donna had an office in which to practice law, Elle was the de facto hausfrau, the receiver of deliveries for them and their neighbors, the first-line pawn in the minutiae of daily life. And Donna wondered why Elle didn’t want another kid.

There was no good reason to help Andrew. She could score her own bud if she wanted, but she’d moved past that, hadn’t touched a joint since Lila was born. Why bake with Andrew? She knew the disappointment that would flood Donna’s face. It would be orders of magnitude worse than her response to Elle’s haircut.

As she waited for her coffee to boil, Elle took the book she’d borrowed from Andrew out of her bag. God, now she would have to read it. She opened the front cover and saw that it was autographed. Andrew, Thanks for all your hard work. Xx, Lara. Why couldn’t her kid have friends with cool parents? There was a girl in her daughter’s class whose mom had been an astronaut and now was writing a dissertation on hieroglyphics. That girl seemed great.

Elle closed the book and wondered where to put it, whether to stash it away or leave it out for Donna to find. Sometimes it was useful to plant avenues for diversionary arguments about easily solved problems that, once worked through, left the impression of achieved harmony.

She texted Andrew: Brown sugar, flour, baking soda, vegetable oil, salt, cinnamon, eggs, butter, ginger, molasses, cloves, one large yellow onion. Chocolate chips.

For four solid minutes she watched gray bubbles start and stop on their text thread. Did he not realize she could see this? Just as her contempt for him ceded to self-disgust that she was still watching, he texted a thumbs-up and a shooting star. Elle tossed her phone onto the couch and poured herself coffee.

For twenty minutes, Elle sat at her drawing board, pencil in hand, weighing whether to enjoy one of her future cookies immediately after baking or to save the entire half batch for times of greater need. She did not hear Donna approach.

“What are you working on?” Donna asked, putting her arms around Elle’s shoulders, her cheek against Elle’s ear.

Elle looked at her sketch paper. Her editor had requested a vision of heaven from the perspective of a housefly. Think rotting fruit and meat, he’d said, rubbing his eyes. So far she’d managed the outline of a decomposing cow.

“A mistake,” she told Donna. She put down her pencil. “But shit’s expensive, man, and fly heaven is two hundred bucks.”

Donna rearranged Elle’s hair to mask the buzzed right side of her head. “We’re fine for money,” she said. “I’d much rather you—”

Whether Donna was going to say she’d much rather Elle work on her book, or, more likely, gestate baby number two, Elle did not find out. Lila plodded wearily into the living room.

“Why isn’t Sadie my roommate?” Lila wailed. “Sadie’s sister has a roommate.”

“Sadie’s sister’s in college,” Donna said. “And she probably doesn’t even like her roommate. But if you do your homework and cultivate four to five meaningful extracurriculars, you, too, could go to college and live with Sadie.”

Elle recognized her opportunity. “I’ll ask Andrew when Sadie’s free,” she said casually. She found her phone on the couch and texted Andrew. If she expected Donna to register this deviation from her usual reluctance to contact either of Sadie’s parents, she felt both relieved and annoyed that Donna did not even glance her way. Elle was going out of her way here to accommodate their daughter’s misguided friendship. Donna could show some appreciation.

Elle decided she would enjoy a cookie at her earliest convenience. She hummed as she shaded in the spots on her cow’s hide. The assignment wasn’t so bad if she reminded herself that the cow she was drawing was merely a figment of a housefly’s imagination, that even in the realm of her picture, the cow had never been real or alive. She put on her headphones and opened Spotify.

When the drawing was done, Elle looked for her phone but could not find it. She kept her headphones in as she searched. When finally she found her phone on the table by the front door, she had several new texts. Andrew had suggested Lila come over that afternoon, cookie emoji winky face, and someone had responded, great, be right over.

Donna was no longer in the apartment; neither was Lila.

Donna loved the building’s marble and glass lobby, its doorman, the way the whole place suggested life could be easy and fine. Maybe they should move there, and Lila could see Sadie every damn day. Elle could finish her book, have the baby, maybe get a normal adult haircut. They could get a small, hypoallergenic dog.

“We’re going to Williams, apartment 12D,” she told the doorman, who nodded and waved them up.

Even the elevator buoyed her spirits with its glossy side panels that assured her she still had it, she still looked good. In her wide-leg pants and blazer, she looked like a woman who made things happen. Except, somehow, with Elle, who seemed to have a playlist readymade for when Donna mentioned having another child. Donna loathed few domestic objects as deeply as Elle’s headphones.

She knocked on the door, and Andrew appeared immediately, looking first very happy and then very startled. “Are we early?” Donna asked.

“Uh,” he said, still for a moment and then snapping into motion. “No, no, come on in.”

Donna nudged Lila ahead of her, and Lila didn’t need encouraging. She hurried to Sadie’s room. Donna surveyed the apartment. She wished hers had an open kitchen. On the counter she noticed a row of ingredients. “Oh, you’re baking,” she said. “How lovely.”

Andrew glanced at the counter and quickly away. “You know, I thought about it, but I’m really not much of a baker, actually. Bit of a false start.” He forced out a laugh.

“But you have everything out.” Donna approached the counter and examined the spread, wondering what he’d intended. There was flour and sugar, eggs and baking soda. Cinnamon and molasses suggested gingersnaps or gingerbread. There was an onion, which was weird. Most likely he’d misread the recipe. Something nagged at her, though—a feeling not quite of déjà vu, but almost. And there it was: Elle in the kitchen of her parents’ cabin, grilling onions while pot brownies baked in the oven. She recalled Elle’s uncharacteristic eagerness to schedule a play-date.

A lifelong maven of unbridled anger, Donna noted with familiarity and almost affection the first percolating bubbles of rage. She felt her blood vessels tighten, her pulse quicken, her blood pressure soar. “You’re baking pot cookies.”

Andrew laughed. “Are you kidding?”

“You thought Elle was bringing Lila.”

“I really didn’t think about it,” he said.

The affronts lined up before Donna’s eyes like obedient spirits. That he would have drugs in the house when her daughter was here. That Elle could still act like such a teenager. That together they would lie and conspire. She hated them. She felt her face burn and her chest heave with the quick, heavy breath of distilled rage.

When she looked up, Andrew had a hard-on. She caught him trying to tuck it into the waistband of his pants, but when he saw that she’d noticed, he dropped his hand. He sat abruptly at the kitchen table and did his best to cross his legs. “Jesus Christ,” he said.

In the midst of rage, Eros: so Donna still held the power to inspire feeling. She took a moment to appreciate the vision of herself in his eyes. She saw her calves firm with her half-marathon, her thick eyebrows that were once again fashionable. As a person, obviously, Andrew was fairly disappointing, but as a conduit of desire he had seen her for what she was and could be. Elle barely looked twice at her anymore. Donna joined Andrew at the table. She considered him. “What’s there to drink?”

After a glance at his lap, Andrew smoothed his pants and retrieved a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. He set out two glasses, uncorked the bottle, and poured. For a few minutes they sipped in silence.

“I never do drugs,” Andrew said.

“I can see that,” she said. “How much weed do you have?”

Andrew drew a crumpled Ziploc from his pocket. “From my older daughter’s hiking boot.”

“And if the kids had asked what you were making?”

“Elle said we’d make regular chocolate chip cookies first.”

“Smart girl,” Donna said. “What are you going to do with all the ingredients?” “Put them away before my wife gets home?”

“When does she get home?”

Andrew checked his watch. “Four hours, if she makes her train from Boston.” Donna looked at Andrew’s thinning lashes, at the lines crisscrossing the bags under his eyes. There was no reason to throw him a bone, and yet she felt a fledging relief in sitting with him. “I could show you how to make them,” she said.

When Elle’s phone rang, she paused Netflix. It was a FaceTime call from Donna. Elle sat up from the couch, smoothed her hair, and answered. Blurry forms moved across the screen. It looked like Donna and Andrew had made a fort in the kitchen. Beneath a picnic blanket draped over the table, and surrounded by couch cushions, Donna and Andrew gazed down at Elle.

“Is she there?” Andrew asked.

“That’s such a good question,” Donna said.

“Hey, guys,” Elle said.

“Maybe she’s not,” Donna whispered to Andrew.

“I was worried about that,” he said somberly. “Very, very worried.”

“I never realized,” Donna said.

“That she wasn’t there?”

“That you were so sensitive.” She put her hand on his cheek.

“You did earlier,” Andrew said. Suddenly they wheezed with laughter and clutched at each other for support.

“Do you remember that?” Donna asked, struggling to breathe through tears. “She thought I was pathetic,” Andrew told Elle. “But it’s been uphill ever since.” He frowned. “Is it uphill or downhill? If things are better?”

Elle didn’t mind that they’d baked. If anything, there was relief in the ammunition it provided her, should Donna make a scene. But to get so obviously high in front of the kids—even a pair of six-year-olds would notice adults making a fort.

Elle called a Lyft, grabbed her coat and keys, and headed uptown. By 96th Street, she was angry. What if the kids ate dish detergent? Would Donna or Andrew notice?

The doorman was out when Elle got to Andrew’s building. She called the elevator and pressed the button for the twelfth floor. As the doors were closing, a well-manicured hand shot between them, followed by a tousled blonde bob. Elle recognized Andrew’s wife immediately. Phoebe was precisely her age but glossy as a magazine, and as fragrant. Elle realized she would have to say something before they both went to the same apartment. She didn’t, though, and neither did Phoebe, who dragged her suitcase into the elevator and, upon seeing twelve already illuminated, retreated to the other side of the car. Together they rose through the building. Around the eighth floor, Elle caught a whiff of weed, and for a moment she marveled that the smell had reached four floors below Andrew’s. But then the scent faded, and the elevator slowed. Elle cleared her throat. “Oh, hey—Phoebe?”

Phoebe glanced from her phone to Elle, frowning as she tried to place her. “Our kids are friends,” Elle added. “I’m actually picking Lila up now.”

Only then did Phoebe really look at her, scanning her up and down as one might a barcode, as frankly as Andrew ever had. Elle felt sure Phoebe could see how she hadn’t exercised in months, how her stomach had rounded like rising dough. Phoebe looked like she belonged in a hit Norwegian web series.

Then Phoebe smiled, reached out and touched Elle’s arm. “Elle, of course. Sorry for the brain freeze. I’m losing my mind this week.”

They walked down the hall. Discreetly, Phoebe looked at her watch, and Elle followed suit: it was after ten already, late for a play-date.

“I’m sorry for the late pick-up,” Elle said. “Donna and I had a scheduling mix-up—”

“Lila’s the only one who ever beats Sadie at Spit. She’s welcome anytime.”

As they proceeded to 12D, Phoebe wrinkled her nose, and Elle smelled the grilled onion. At least they’d done that. Phoebe pulled out her keys and unlocked the door.

The apartment was dark but for a sky’s worth of glow-in-the-dark stars pasted to every possible surface. On the walls, glowing lines connected the points into made-up constellations, patterns without myths. On the floor, the two girls, Donna, and Andrew lay on their backs.

“Behold,” Andrew said, “the world in its beauteous terror.”

Elle looked at Phoebe. For a long moment, it seemed the woman could swing into either ire or jest. Then, softly, Phoebe took off her heels and lay down next to Sadie.

Elle could not move from the doorway. As her eyes adjusted, dimmer stars beckoned from what seemed like impossible distances. She hesitated to breathe lest this new universe fall apart. And yet it felt perilous to lose herself in the cozy artifice of the galaxy-cloaked room. Dimly she recalled desires—to write her book, to travel, to fall in love again and again—that had retreated into the recesses of expanding space, leaving only the afterglow of stretched light.

At the dark center of the makeshift planetarium, Donna turned toward her. That she could not guess what Donna was trying to communicate depressed Elle, but it did not seem to trouble Donna, who didn’t look away. The constancy of Donna’s gaze began to feel sturdy, to extend gravity and warmth in an otherwise chilly night sky. Quietly, Elle sat, the edge of the carpet rough against her palms. Only then did Donna look away.

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